Does debate matter?

Might the House of Commons be put to more interesting use?


Slate’s Explainer asks, Do debates in the Senate ever change a senator’s mind?

Yes. Members of Congress have occasionally acknowledged changing their minds during floor debate, although most of those frank admissions came before the modern stigma against flip-flopping. Staunch environmentalist Edmund Muskie, for example, decided to support funding for a nuclear reactor in 1975 after listening to a floor speech by John Pastore of Rhode Island. Speeches about obscure bills tend to have greater effect, because members of Congress may have weakly held views based solely on party affiliation or instructions. During an extraordinary four-day debate in 1960, Sens. Paul Douglas of Illinois and Wayne Morse of Oregon killed a bill involving private access to state-developed water sources. Although the bill sailed through committee with unanimous approval and no debate, Douglas and Morse successfully tarred it on the floor as an unprecedented giveaway of public water to private and corporate landowners. The abrupt change in a large number of votes suggests many senators didn’t fully understand what they had been supporting until Douglas and Morse explained it to them. It’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a senator to change his or her position on a major issue like gun control after hearing a single floor speech.

How to make debate in the House matter is a question we’ve batted around before—see yesterday or two years ago. There are a few issues here. Firstly, if the final vote result isn’t in question and there is no chance of anyone changing their vote and there is even little chance of anything about the legislation changing, debates are more easily ignored by the press gallery. And if it’s unclear how seriously the participants take the proceedings and the forum, it is all the more difficult to view the proceedings as consequential. It would, for instance, help some if the Finance Minister were delivering his fall economic update from his seat in the House, instead of appearing before various chamber of commerce luncheons. Or if the Prime Minister periodically deigned to deliver a speech in the chamber we have theoretically constructed for such purposes.

I can think of a few times in the last six years that the proceedings of the House have been a point of focus: the Prime Minister’s motion on the Quebecois nation and the resulting debate, the long-gun registry vote in 2010, the vote on Motion 312 and the vote on the transgendered-rights bill (and, in different ways, the NDP filibuster of back-to-work legislation for Canada Post and the voting marathons on last year’s two omnibus budget bills). Whether or not any MP changed his or her mind based on what was said in the House, the proceedings seemed to be of identifiable and legitimate intrigue.

The great sickness that drains the life out of our democracy is the rote. We require some structure and predictability—we should not aim for chaos—but if we are to have a House of Commons, we should hope that it periodically be somewhat interesting. That it seem consequential.


Does debate matter?

  1. Ah, but now we have this marvelous shiny, new, donor driven, permanent campaign thingy, don’t we. What use is a House of debate when the parties can now pester us endlessly on tv and online without filter? Or take their carefully, micro targeted selective messaging to the chamber of commerce…er, shop floor…er, local Timmies…anywhere but the lawfully appointed place for national debate. Because that’s what it is all about, no matter how much they tell you it’s about informing you…removing the legitimate critical filters on their propaganda. Yay Democracy in the 21 century eh!

    We live in the marketers world now. So,no need to listen to some boring old debate; no need to think at all really…all you need to do is sign the next petition someone[political party or not] sends to you and remember to make your tax deductible micro donation to “The Party.” of your choice.

  2. Debate matters a great deal, I think Canadians are losing interest in politics because our MPs are second and third rate people who go into politics for money, not to make society better, and they can’t debate for toffee.

    Actual debate in Canada has mostly disappeared – we have Liberal ideology that everyone must believe in or face human rights trials – and it is dull as dishwater. And our msm behave like Victorian spinsters who get the vapours the moment Cons say anything remotely non-Liberal.

    Think of American elections and the crazy debates they have – they have free speech protection and political parties are not really capable of enforcing ideological beliefs on individual members. Republicans or Democrats from Texas, Oregon and Pennsylvania are not expected to have exact same beliefs and the entire world ends up watching year long process to elect President.

    I am in constant communication with work colleagues in Japan and South Korea and I remember last year thinking how odd it was for a Canadian, Japanese and Korean to be enthralled by a different country’s political process. We don’t gossip about our own elections and yet there we were talking about people called Newt, Mitt, Hilary and Barack. And one of the reasons people follow the American scene is because the pols say what they think.

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